Afghan refugees have asked for sanctuary for a long time — only now do we listen
UK officials, ministers and military personnel knew the occupation of Afghanistan was not going as well as the national media was telling the public, but there was a conspiracy of silence. The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan shows how deluded the British elite’s view of its global power is.
It was a freezing November day in France 2010 when an Afghan boy approached a parked truck in Calais and showed me how he spent each night climbing under lorries in a bid to slip undetected into the UK.
His clandestine travel method was not as suicidal as clinging to the outside of a US Air Force plane but it was fraught with danger and desperation. Like many now stuck at Kabul airport, he dreamt of being reunited with relatives in Britain and starting a new life safe from war.
Unaccompanied minors such as him would later become a cause célèbre among Remainers who wanted the UK to stay in the European Union, but in 2010 it was hard to find anyone beyond a few church groups, immigration lawyers and anarchists who supported Afghan refugees in Calais.
Britain’s Labour government and others in the EU had spent the decade since invading Afghanistan demonising anyone who attempted to flee the country. To grant asylum was to admit the occupation was failing to make Afghanistan safe.
In 2002, shortly after the US-led invasion, Tony Blair envisaged using RAF transport planes (the type now evacuating Afghans from Kabul) for mass deportation flights.
His home secretary, David Blunkett, said he had “no sympathy whatsoever” with young Afghan refugees. Blunkett insisted: “We are freeing countries of different religions and cultural backgrounds and making it possible for them to get back home and rebuild their countries.”
What followed was the largest ever expansion of Britain’s immigration detention centres, a move mirrored across the Western world as Afghans staged hunger strikes and sewed their lips together to demand sanctuary.
Even before 9/11, the world cared little for Afghan minorities persecuted by the Taliban.
“We were trying to go somewhere to find peace and education,” Khodadad, an Afghan refugee told me as he described how in August 2001 Australian special forces turned away the ship he was on, the Tampa, which carried hundreds of asylum seekers mainly from Afghanistan’s Persian-speaking Hazara community.
But crucially the so-called war on terror, and the fear surrounding it, allowed private security companies to cash in on Afghanistan’s suffering, and provided an enormous financial motive to keep it going as long as possible.
Blood and treasure
Firms like G4S were paid handsomely to deport “failed” asylum seekers, often hiring war veterans to do the dirty work while one former British minister, defence and immigration supremo Lord John Reid, made £50,000 a year as a G4S consultant.
These same firms earned big money guarding foreign facilities in Afghanistan. The current three-year contract to secure the British embassy in Kabul is worth £65-million for GardaWorld.
Britain’s Conservatives were no different to New Labour when they took power in 2010, as then-Home Secretary Theresa May almost immediately planned a £4-million reintegration centre in Kabul to resettle Afghan refugees as young as 16.
“Meanwhile, defence chiefs pumped out press releases about their successes in training thousands of Afghan soldiers and police who would guard their new nation against the Taliban long after Nato left.”
In reality the Afghan regime propped up by the West lasted little more than a week once forces withdrew. Twenty years of occupation had produced one of the most corrupt countries in the world, a narco-state awash with heroin and floating on a sea of Western aid money.
Millions of girls did go to school, something they would not have done under the Taliban, a fact that might provide some solace to the bereaved families of the 457 British troops who died in Afghanistan. Over 300 more required amputations.
But despite all this blood and billions of pounds in treasure, an estimated two-thirds of Afghan girls still did not go to school by 2017, and the women’s literacy rate reached only 30% — among the lowest in the world, in a country where 90% of the population live below the poverty line and nearly a quarter of a million people have died from the conflict since 2001.
The anti-war movement, which opposed the invasion at the outset, appears vindicated in its argument that there were better ways to bring Osama bin Laden to justice. After a decade on the run, the Saudi-born terrorist was captured at a compound less than a mile from a military base run by the UK and US’s close ally Pakistan.
And many who believed in the war became disillusioned long ago. Joe Glenton served in Kandahar in 2006 as a lance corporal in the Royal Logistics Corps. When an ageing Nimrod plane crashed killing 14 British troops, Glenton “bumped down the road in a forklift with the coffins stacked up on my forks, two or three at a time. All I could think was that it was a waste.”
He went awol to avoid returning to Afghanistan, telling then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown in a letter that “far from improving Afghan lives it is bringing death and devastation to their country”. He was jailed by a military court and sidelined.
Clive Lewis, a Labour MP who served in Afghanistan in 2009, was not allowed to speak during the parliamentary debate on Wednesday but offered his reflections on Twitter afterwards.
“I wanted to believe I was there for the right reasons,” he said. “But it’s hard to convince yourself of that cause when you witness first-hand the human toll of your presence. Like the 15-year-old Afghan boy and his father I met seeking medical treatment, a bloodied stump where his foot should have been, accidentally shot off by Nato forces.”
We only learnt about the extent of such civilian casualties because WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange published classified US government files in 2010, known as the Afghan war logs.
While the Western media ponder the Taliban’s approach to press freedom, Assange sits behind bars at Belmarsh maximum security prison in London for exposing the scale of Nato war crimes — and Western forces who killed Afghan civilians walk free.
Trump pardoned US troops accused of atrocities. The UK government would not even bring prosecutions. Instead it closed down investigations and pushed hard for an amnesty — a propaganda gift for the Taliban, undermining the West’s claim to the moral high ground.
When The Sunday Times printed allegations of British special forces executing Afghan civilians in a night raid, The Sun’s defence editor David Willetts berated his fellow journalists for criticising the military. He went on to work in a senior role for the Ministry of Defence (MOD) press office, a department embroiled in disseminating misinformation about the war.
Simon Akam, an author whose book criticising the British army’s performance in Iraq and Afghanistan was initially dropped by a publisher after he refused to let the MOD vet the manuscript, commented this week: “It is striking to see how over-optimistic the estimates of the capacity of the Afghan forces trained by the West were.”
He tweeted: “I keep recalling being driven around [Camp] Bastion by an amiable media minder saying ‘We have these key lines we’re meant to be pushing, and they just don’t correspond to reality.’ That was seven years ago.”
Hundreds if not thousands of British civil servants, ministers and military officers must have known that the occupation was not going nearly as well as the press was telling the public, but there was a conspiracy of silence.
Tobias Ellwood, the chairman of Parliament’s defence committee, which is meant to scrutinise the Ministry of Defence, is also a reserve officer in the British army’s 77th Brigade, a psyops unit that deals in information warfare.
Ellwood was a minister in the UK foreign and defence departments from 2014-19, meaning he would have been well aware of the real state of Afghanistan’s security forces.
Shortly before becoming a minister, Ellwood already knew that 30% of Afghan security forces deserted, only half of its battalions were capable of independent operations, 70% of recruits were illiterate and 20% were drug addicts. Their performance hardly improved during his five years as a minister.
Yet he is now a leading critic of the government’s decision to pull out, clinging to any signs of hope that the West will make a comeback in Afghanistan, to redeem the humiliation and betrayal.
While there are already courageous popular protests in some cities against the Taliban, it is still unclear what happened to the 300,000 troops and police Nato claimed it trained.
NDS 01, a CIA-backed Afghan special forces unit which a Human Rights Watch report described as a “death squad” for its attacks on civilians, hinted at a return. It tweeted after the fall of Kabul: “We will come. We will serve our countrymen as well.”
Former warlords from the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance are said to be regrouping in the Panjshir valley north of Kabul. Among their supporters is rumoured to be General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a senior politician during the US occupation, but hardly a human rights champion.
He is dogged by allegations that his men suffocated hundreds if not thousands of Taliban prisoners in sealed shipping containers in the Dasht-i-Leili massacre of 2001.
Ultimately, politicians like Ellwood are not genuinely concerned by the human rights records of the UK’s allies and support brutal regimes from Saudi Arabia to Brunei.
Listening to Ellwood carefully it becomes clear he wants the West to remain indefinitely in Afghanistan for geo-strategic, not humanitarian, reasons.
He told Parliament on Wednesday: “What was the G7 summit all about? The Western reset to tackle growing instability, not least given China, Russia and Iran. Take a look at a map. Where does Afghanistan sit? Right between all three. Strategically, it is a useful country to stay close to.”
On Sunday, as Kabul fell, he stressed the importance of Afghanistan as a “bit of global real estate”.
This defeat is particularly bitter for Ellwood because in support of his militarist worldview Britain was on the cusp of expanding its global power by sending one of its new aircraft carriers (which doubles as a taxi for US fighter jets) into the South China Sea.
The fall of Kabul is a humiliating reminder of how dangerously deluded Ellwood’s estimation of Britain’s power in the world has become, and that 20 years of foreign policy failure must not be distorted into an excuse to do it all over again. DM
Phil Miller is a chief reporter at Declassified UK, an investigative journalism organisation that covers the UK’s role in the world.